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In the United States, men outnumber women in many science and engineering fields by nearly 3 to 1. In fields like physics or the geosciences, the gender gap can be even wider. The Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) has been working to narrow this gap among early-career scientists since 2002. Now, three ESWN board members are working with a team to increase the number of female undergraduate students earning undergraduate degrees in the geosciences or continuing on to graduate school in these fields.
With a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Emily Fischer, an Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University and ESWN Board Member, will lead the effort to try to close the gender gap in the geosciences or earth sciences, which encompass fields such as mining and geology, the atmospheric sciences, issues related to natural resource management, natural disaster forecasting, and oceanography.
In addition to Fischer, the team includes Rebecca Barnes, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences at Colorado College (ESWN Board member), Sandra Clinton, a Research Assistant Professor of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina Charlotte (ESWN member), and Manda Adams, an Assistant Research Professor associated with the University of North Carolina Charlotte who is currently on an appointment at the National Science Foundation (working with the geoscience project team as part of her Independent Research and Development program, ESWN Board member). The group also engages expertise in psychology and education, working with Silvia S. Canetto, a CSU Psychology Professor, Paul R. Hernandez, an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology at West Virginia University, and Laura Sample McMeeking, the Associate Director of the CSU science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) Center.
Mentoring female undergraduate students by providing access to professional women across geoscience fields and creating a peer-network of students with similar academic interests will be the program focus.
“We want to build the pipeline of female students entering the geosciences,” Fischer said. “Females are underrepresented in the geosciences –at about 16 percent of the workforce. That is the picture in my field too – women represent about 15% of atmospheric scientists. It’s even lower when you get into geology”
Starting in 2015, the team will recruit 50 first-year female students from CSU, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of Wyoming to attend a workshop where they will learn about educational and career opportunities and meet peers with similar interests. The team will simultaneously recruit a cohort of students from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Duke University, and the University of South Carolina.
From there, they will be mentored in person by local members of ESWN, a non-profit organization dedicated to career development and community for women in the earth sciences. In addition, female students will have access to a web-platform that will enable national-scale peer mentoring.
“We are patterning this intervention after outreach programs that we know have been successful with advanced undergraduate and graduate-level women,” Fischer said. “We want to see if this can work with female undergraduate students and get more of them interested in pursuing careers in the geosciences.”
Canetto, Hernandez, and Sample McMeeking will be also be evaluating the effectiveness of the program and whether mentoring is a good model for recruiting women into the geosciences.
“There is evidence that mentoring seems to be an effective tool for women in various disciplines, but there is no scientific data for women in the geosciences,” Fischer said. “We want to collect real data from these students. We want to understand whether mentoring works for undergraduate women in the geosciences and exactly how beneficial these efforts could be. My goal for the next 5 years is to design an effective and inexpensive recruitment and retention program for the geosciences that can be a model for other universities.”